Boxing Judges: Corrupt or Incompetent?

Are Boxing Judges Corrupt or Incompetent?

First of all, let me say this. This article is probably no more than a couple of handfuls of judges. My experience has been that most boxing judges are honorable people and do their best to see and judge a fight fairly. However, there have been enough “stinkers of decisions” to at least make us pause to wonder about the integrity and/or competence of some boxing judges.

Certain fights have just yielded outcomes that have an odor about them.

Castillo/Mayweather I, Holyfield/Valuev, Holyfield/Lewis, Toney/Tiberi, and Williams/Lara come to mind, among several others. (I’m leaving out the Park Si-Hun debacle over Roy Jones Jr. The Olympics is something else again).

The problem with corruption, of course, is that it is extremely difficult to separate from incompetence. The boxing judge may not be crooked; he/she may simply be wrong. There are other factors that may have influenced a seemingly poor decision by a judge; the angle the judge saw the fight from (where he/she was sitting, I mean), the judge’s natural bias; some boxing judges prefer ring generalship and defensive skills over the all-out offense, the judge’s state of health at the time (as the judge ill or having a bad day), the influence of the crowd’s reaction to a fight, how the boxing judge was trained to score fights, intimidation from the crowd or promoter or some other party, among others.

There is a very “human element” to judging and this element can result in mistakes. Corruption is a very serious charge so we need to have compelling evidence before we go there.

So, let’s take a closer look at some of the more difficult to understand scorecards in boxing history. I’ll start with the Tommy Hearns/Wilfred Benitez fight. The fight wasn’t a close one by all accounts from those who observed it – except in the eyes of one judge, Lou Filippo.

Somewhat inexplicably, Filippo had the score even; but Judge Tony Castellano had it 144-139 Hearns, while Dick Young scored it 146-136. Filippo’s score was so outlandish that it prompted one of my friends to wonder if he had skipped out for a bathroom break for a couple of rounds. So was Filippo crooked, incompetent, or something else?

Let’s rule out incompetence right off the bat. Filippo had been a boxer himself and was well aware of the vagaries of the ring. As a fairly accomplished lightweight, he had strung together a record of 23-9-3-1 (8 KO’s) during his time as a pugilist. He fought some decent names too, including Kid Castro and Carlos Ortiz, so he knew what was what in the ring. There’s also the matter of his experience.

He judged something like 85 world title fights including the Ray Leonard win over Marvin Hagler (Lou saw the fight for Hagler) and actually ended up being elected to the World Boxing Hall of Fame – to which he rose to the rank of President in 1993. There is no particular history of poor decisions from Filippo; just this one egregious “draw”.

For these same reasons, I’m inclined to write off corruption. Filippo’s integrity has never been seriously challenged; nor has there been any reason to do so. All of this then begs the question; “what happened?” How did this well-experienced, former boxer and professional judge miss so badly in this one fight? The answer may lie in something few fans ever take into account. Go back and watch the fight.

The vast majority of the action took place along the ropes to the left of Benitez’s corner and near his corner itself. And where was Filippo sitting? On the opposite side, about as far away from the action as a judge could have been. My theory has always been that Filippo simply couldn’t see what was actually going on. He wasn’t crooked. He wasn’t incompetent. He was blinded.

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Similar to the above in many respects was Judge Adalaide Byrd’s inexplicable 118-110, Alvarez in the 2017 Golovkin/Alvarez tilt. That Alvarez won is debatable in the eyes of many but not to the point where many serious fans found it egregiously so. But the fight was close; there’s no debate about that. A score like the one Byrd rendered did an injustice to the boxers, the fans, and to the sport itself.

I’ve never been much of an Adalaide Byrd fan. I’ve found myself on the opposite side of several of her decisions (Dodson/Munhoz, Dern/Yoder); but have also agreed with her on several. So, what is it? Is she corrupt? No. Is she incompetent? No. What Adalaide Byrd is, is a purist. Byrd judges fights by the book.

In some sense, she would be a better judge of the amateurs than she is of the professionals. While nearly all boxing judges favor the aggressor and the harder puncher, Byrd gives equal weight to the stuff most fans either don’t see or care about. She lends equal weight to footwork, ring generalship, and defense.

This makes her sometimes technically correct in her scoring but not popular with many because she doesn’t score the “sexy” stuff more heavily. In the end, I just don’t think Adalaide Byrd is a particularly good judge for pro boxing.

Now let’s have a look at something more obvious. James “Lights Out” Toney’s 5th defense of his IBF Middleweight title was against the talented, but unheralded, David Tiberi. Tiberi outboxed and out-landed Toney significantly over the 12 rounds. It really wasn’t close, with CompuBox having Tiberi ahead by a very wide margin. Yet, Toney was gifted a split decision when boxing judges Frank Garza and Bill Lerch observed the fight 115-112, Toney. The other Judge, the well-respected Frank Brunette, had a far more reasonable and accurate 117-111, Tiberi.

Now a disparity like that is going to cause some of the powers-that-be to have a second look, and “second look” they did. As it turned out, Garza and Lerch weren’t even licensed to judge fights in New Jersey and had been appointed by the promoter of the bout. Reports out of Atlantic City also referenced unusually large sums of money having been wagered on the fight.

While charges were never laid, nor pronouncements made, it seemed pretty clear to most that “money passed” somewhere in the background, leading to the gift for Toney. One tragic sidenote in all of this; Tiberi was so discouraged, that he retired after the fight.
Turning to another example of horrific judging, we have what many hold up as Exhibit “A” when poor/corrupt boxing decisions are being bandied about; the Paul Williams/Erislandy Lara majority nod in favor of Williams.

Now, this fight wasn’t even close. I’m sure no-one was more surprised to hear his name as the winner than was Williams. At best, he won maybe 3 rounds, yet the scores read 116-114, 115-114, and 114-114 to the benefit of Williams.

An investigation into this piece of highway robbery immediately ensued and while no evidence of corruption was found, the three judges, Hilton Whittaker Jr., Al Bennett, and Donald Givens were suspended and sent for additional training. Sadly, the result was allowed to stand.

Additionally, we have the Holyfield/Lewis “draw” as yet another stain on the sport. Even Evander Holyfield’s mother might have found it difficult to score this one for her son. Lewis beat on Holyfield for 12 rounds.

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He out-landed “The Real Deal” by over 200 punches! In fact, Lewis landed just about as many punches as Holyfield threw for the entire fight.

I remember walking away from the fight to get a drink from the fridge because I thought the decision was an afterthought. When I learned it had been scored a draw, I was outraged; stunned! How could this be?

What in the world had those boxing judges been watching? Judge Eugenia Williams went so far as to score the 5th round for Holyfield.

He was out-landed 43-11 by Lewis in that round! Somehow, she had Holyfield the winner at 115-113. It was outrageous! Yet, other than a rematch 8 months later (handily won by Lewis), there were no repercussions after the fight; no investigation, no suspensions.

The governing body of the bout, the WBC, said only this, “Judging is a subjective thing. While we do not agree with Judge William’s scorecard, we are satisfied that she scored the fight as she saw it.”

What? I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. Fans deserve so much more. Even if I go with the “no evidence of corruption” stance (I don’t by the way), the sport and the fans deserve so much better. Williams should never have been allowed to remain a judge – but she was.

This only served to further cement the idea in the minds of fans that incompetence in boxing judges is something that is simply tolerated.

The corollary problem with that, is that it leaves open the question, “why?” Is it laziness? A lack of judges? Or is it something more insidious? Fans need to know that what they are paying to watch will be fairly judged and boxers deserve to have their fights fairly and competently adjudicated.

There is one other factor I want to touch on here; the effects of boxing commentary and TV coverage on the perception of fans about controversial decisions. This cannot be underestimated or overlooked.

I believe it plays a huge part in the game. Boxing’s “big fights” come with ‘baggage.’ That baggage can include the bias of the commentators, the popularity or unpopularity of one of the combatants, the referee, the boxing judges, and the leaning of the crowd.

If the hugely popular Amir Khan fights in his hometown of Bolton against someone from Canada, the crowd is going to be hugely in favor of Khan. Everything he does in the ring will be exaggerated and over-reacted to by the crowd. Everything his Canadian opponent does will be met with a muted response, if not ignored altogether.

For those of us watching dispassionately from home, we are going to hear the ooh’s and ah’s of the crowd – and the commentators – every time Khan meets with some success during the bout. So little mention will be made of the “opponent” that if you were listening to the fight on the radio, you would be forgiven for assuming Amir was in the ring alone.

Don’t think so? Try this. The next time you watch a blockbuster fight, watch it with the volume turned off. Score the fight that way, then compare it to the actual result. You’re going to be surprised.

You see, boxing judges are people too. They are subject to the same influences as we all are. They are trained to ignore the background noise but that’s not truly practical when you’ve got a stadium of 10,000 souls or so screaming for their guy at the top of their lungs. When a judge hears a crescendo after something or the other happens in the ring, he or she can’t help but wonder if they’ve missed something.

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Similarly, when commentators like George Foreman or Roy Jones make observations about the fight as it’s happening, it’s going to affect how we the fans, see what’s happening in there. How could it not? I boxed, but I was no Roy Jones. If Roy says the guy is being effective, he must be right – even if I’m not really seeing it myself.

This too then colors how we see the decision. ‘What’s that judge talking about? Roy said the other guy won the fight.’ That’s just human nature, my friends. We all tend to be guided and influenced by those whom we see as “experts” in any field.

So where does this leave us? What is the fight fan to believe? Well, here’s the truth. There is very little documented evidence of corruption amongst boxing judges today. This perception seems to be a holdover from the good old days when the mob was very heavily involved in the sport and boxing judges could be had for a few hundred dollars here or there.

In fairness to the various governing and regulatory bodies, on those occasions when there has been evidence of corruption, the judges have largely been removed and steps are taken to ensure the integrity of the sport.

It seems to me that incompetence is by far the bigger fish to fry. But how do we fix it? That answer lies in correcting the hodgepodge methods of training and assigning judges to fights, that’s currently in place.

We need to have a national and international body that governs and “judges the judges”. Their training needs to be standardized. Judges must be required to attend on-going learning/professional development courses and they must be held accountable for their work.

Most importantly though, the role of the boxers and their promoters in picking boxing  judges for a fight must be eliminated in its entirety. Who judges a fight must be randomly assigned, and the judges themselves should be paid by an unconnected third party.

Perhaps there can be a system of “judge pools” established. These pools can be further divided based upon the expertise these boxing judges have shown throughout their careers.

For example, only certain approved judges can be selected to adjudicate championship fights; and these boxing judges will be randomly assigned from the pool of so-qualified arbiters. I think this would go a long way to easing the concerns of fans and fighters when it comes to fights being judged fairly.

Corruption and, more so, incompetence, are a part of boxing and have been for many, many years. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. In fact, we shouldn’t.

If we don’t, then the sport – which is already on life support – will simply fade into oblivion. There are answers. Some of them are unpopular with the promoters and the TV people. That’s how I know they are good ideas.

These people only get upset if they see their bottom line threatened. In their eyes, giving up any sort of control over what happens in a fight, is a potential threat to that bottom line. That threat is a good thing though, folks. We need to embrace it. We need to insist on better so that the sport we all love will once again flourish. It’s not just that we can do better; it’s that we must do better.

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